Dealing with difficult people

frustratedI’ve actually had people say to me, “Well you’re paid to be nice.  You’re a pastor.”  I suppose I should take that as a compliment.

In my own self-inventory, I know I am not a mean person.  I’m not a bully.  I try my best to be kind to every person I am around.  I work hard never to be condescending.  In spite of my humor and sarcasm, it is my goal that everyone knows I am joking.  I listen carefully to know if I am getting close to lines I shouldn’t cross.

I have been well taught to treat everyone with respect and to acknowledge their inherent worth in the way I think, act, and talk to them…especially those with whom I disagree.  This goes for public figures whom I will never know personally, as well as people I rub elbows with.

I’m not a fighter.  I’m not combative.  When something is wrong or a problem needs to be addressed, I’ve always found that patience and gentleness work way better than overreaction.  Maybe there really is something to this spiritual fruit thing.

The reality?  I live at theological and ideological odds with many, maybe even most, of my friends.  I sense that many have no clue how deep our differences are.  Those that do, don’t seem to care.  Our friendship always seems to win the day and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If I might be so bold, I want to offer some advice for how to deal with difficult, opinionated, or seemingly incompatible people.

  1. Refuse to define people with popular labels (Republican, liberal, Baptist, Californian, hipster, whatever…) Labels create assumptions that could be wrong, don’t tell the whole story, and build walls.
  2. Learn to separate the intrinsic value of people from their opinions or ideas on various topics.
  3. Give people room to be different, imperfect, broken, under-informed, naive, or even total failures, without making yourself judge and jury.
  4. Anger, exasperation, irritability, outrage, aggravation, judgment, and feelings of superiority are all responses we choose.   We can also choose to respond with humility, grace, and kindness to the exact same people or situations. That’s the beauty of choice.
  5. In spite of what you might think, respect does not have to be earned.  It can and should be given freely.
  6. Stop justifying your ungracious, unloving, or unhealthy attitudes and responses by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” Either you believe God has the power to change you or not.
  7. Never assume you are 100% right and they are 100% wrong.
  8. Begin conversations with people who have opposing points of view with, “Help me understand why you think (about this topic) the way you do.  Help me understand why you feel the way you do.”  Leave room to learn something new.
  9. Stop seeing people with opposing viewpoints or opinions as the enemy.  
  10. Work to find common ground…and build your friendship on that foundation.
  11. Spend more time with gracious, loving people.  They have a tendency to rub off on you.

You can thank me later.

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